In 1972, as America protested the Vietnam War and Helen Reddy’s ‘I
Am Woman’ played endlessly on the radio, 21 students were embarking
on a mission to put together a feminist art project. What they
called Womanhouse was an installation piece, set in an
actual condemned house in Los Angeles, that explored the ways that
women are trapped by the home. There was the ‘Nurturant Kitchen,’
with egglike nipples applied to the ceiling and walls; the
‘Menstruation Bathroom’ with bloodied tampons; and the ‘Bridal
Stair-case,’ featuring a new bride in her new home/prison.
This house has haunted me. I was raised on Betty Friedan-style
feminism. Growing up, I wanted nothing to do with domesticity,
motherhood, marriage, or anything else that reeked of traditional
womanhood. My dream was to become a famous bohemian like the writer
Anaïs Nin or the feminist artist Miriam Schapiro.
My attitude remained unchallenged throughout my college years. I
was a women’s studies major at UCLA in the early ’90s, and my
professors, like the artists who created Womanhouse,
perceived the home and its accompanying activities as something
that women needed to free themselves from. Smart, enlightened women
had little time for silly things like cooking, sewing, knitting, or
cleaning. And it all made sense to me. After college, bad-ass and
ambitious, I hopped from job to job, working as a filmmaker, a
video editor, and a Web producer. My focus was becoming successful.
As a result, I never learned how to save money or create a nice
Then, at age 28, I crashed. Sure, I had built a ‘career’ for
myself, but I also had a huge debt, a crappy apartment with the
requisite futon on the floor, bad eating habits, worse boyfriend
choices, and no real clue as to how to be a grown-up. I began
reevaluating who I was and what I wanted, including many of the
things that I had always dismissed because I didn’t want to be one
of ‘those’ women. After all, I reasoned, what did I have to fear
from domestic entrapment? I was a single girl with a job and a
growing posse of girlfriends. I just wanted someplace nice to come
Before I knew it, I was buying books on macrobiotics and natural
healing. I also read about home furnishing and feng shui as I
plotted out the new décor for my apartment. I took up knitting,
crafts, and sewing. I bought overpriced glossies, ‘cool’ mags like
Wallpaper and Nest. And I got secret subscriptions to
Martha Stewart Living and Gourmet magazine.
And you know what I learned? All the stuff that I had always
dismissed as stupid housework was actually quite complicated. There
are also systems and rules for doing it well–and they are not
obvious, nor are they being taught anywhere. Do you know the proper
way to sew on a button or iron a shirt or bleach your whites?
‘Cause I sure as hell didn’t–and none of my friends did, either.
As I started experimenting with different domestic tasks, I
discovered which ones I liked (cooking, woodwork, knitting), and
which ones I hated (ironing, laundry, dusting). I learned that my
favorite thing to do in the whole world is to grocery shop–I love
to be around food, to smell it, touch it, and think about all the
delicious things I’m going to make in the kitchen.
Yet even with all this joyous creativity, I still feel
conflicted. After all, our culture continues to thumb its nose at
domesticity. Even more troubling to me is that feminism also
dismisses domesticity. When Betty Friedan searched for the cause of
the ‘problem that has no name’ affecting middle-class white
suburban housewives in 1963, she found it in housecleaning and
caring for a family. According to Friedan, all things domestic were
actually the root of women’s problems and depression. As I read
through the book now, almost 40 years later, I have a lot of
sympathy and admiration for Friedan, but I think her analysis is
off. It isn’t the housework itself that is so stifling (although it
may be to some), but rather the fact that at the time few other
alternatives were available to women, and, perhaps even more
importantly, that women’s work has always been devalued.
What if, instead, we thought of domesticity as our history, and
therefore an important part of who we are? Don’t get me wrong–I’m
not suggesting that all women quit their jobs, get married, and
stay at home in the suburbs. But I am suggesting that we think of
‘women’s work’ as something viable, interesting, and
important–like knowing how to play an instrument or speaking a
foreign language. And what about the skill, love, and creativity
that goes into raising children and running a home? It’s not
stupid, and it’s not simple; it’s damn hard work that we as
feminists need to start respecting.
Six months ago, I did something that I never thought I
would do in a million years: I got married. The plan was that after
the ceremony, my husband and I would live in separate apartments,
the way we always had. I just couldn’t bring myself to cohabit with
a man; I was afraid of losing my identity and having to ‘look
after’ him. But in the end, after many conversations, we decided to
move in together anyway.
It’s been difficult, but we seem to have established a pretty
equitable system. I do most of the cooking and grocery shopping, he
does all the ironing, clothes mending, and dishwashing, and we
split all other tasks right down the middle. We fight over stuff
like vacuuming and whether we should order in again. But we also
have a blast together: We painted our apartment sky blue, avocado
green, café con leche, and bright pink, built tons of
shelves, and finished it with the finest thrift store finds to
create a look that can only be described as
So here I am at age 30. My life is much more domestic and
varied and interesting and creative and pastiche-like than I ever
imagined. I didn’t become a feminist artist or a bohemian writer.
Instead, I practice my feminism in the way I live my life, the
clothes I wear, the home I live in, the food I eat, the company I
keep. It’s not glamorous, but it’s fulfilling. As it turns out, my
experience is the opposite of that of the women who built
Womanhouse: Embracing domesticity and women’s work has freed
me from depression and a feeling that my life is meaningless. Best
of all, I have discovered simple ways to give myself and others the
gift of living well.
From Bust (Spring 2001). Subscriptions: $11.95/yr. (4 issues)
from Box 1016, Cooper Station, New York, NY 10276.